When Navy Commander Scott Shackleton stepped off a C-130 aircraft and set foot on the South Pole today, he set a family record. His distant relative, the legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, had tried and failed repeatedly to reach the Pole a century ago.
The journey has become the stuff of legend. Shackleton led his men in lifeboats across ice-clogged waters to South Georgia Island -- where they then had to scale the island's snow-capped mountains to reach the safety of a whaling station on the other side of the island.
Scott Shackleton's journey today was less challenging. Modern technology makes Antarctic travel easier. But his journey fulfills the family dream of having a Shackleton reach the South Pole.
Visiting Pole Was Lifelong Dream for Cmdr. Shackleton
A fifth cousin of the great explorer, Cmdr. Shackleton traces his family connection to Yorkshire, England where his great-great-grandfather and Sir Ernest's grandfather were brothers. Since he was a child he admired Sir Ernest and dreamed of following in his footsteps.
This year's Operation Deep Freeze gave Scott, a Navy reservist, his opportunity.
Military Sealift Command conducts the annual resupply mission for the research personnel who live on Antarctica year-round. For the last three weeks, Cmdr. Shackleton had been serving as an operations officer at McMurdo Station, near the Antarctic coast.
Just getting to serve at McMurdo fulfilled a career goal for Cmdr. Shackleton, who said he had kept his "fingers crossed" that he might be selected for one of the handful of seats available on resupply flights from McMurdo Station to the South Pole.
His wish came true.
At McMurdo Station, Scott Shackleton had already reconnected with his famous relative when he visited the hut of Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated 1912 expedition. Shackleton had participated in an earlier Scott expedition.
Cmdr. Shackleton Felt 'Ghosts of Explorers Past'
Cmdr. Shackleton says that while working at McMurdo Station you can't help but "feel the ghosts of the explorers past."
Arriving at the Pole today, Scott Shackleton said it was an honor, "considering all the arduous things he went through, and never really got through. And so I feel honored that I got to step on the south pole as a Shackleton and enjoy the feeling of being there."
The visit was a "dash for the Pole," said Shackleton, who had half an hour to look around while the supply plane was offloaded.
He described a "rude awakening" when he stepped off the plane into temperatures 50 degrees below zero. "It hits you like a wall," he said.
Landscape at Pole Was 'Flat as the Eye Could See'
During his visit he paused for pictures at the historic South Pole marker, but he couldn't shoot video. His camera froze in the frigid air.
The landscape was flat as the eye could see, much different than the view of mountain ranges and glaciers he'd seen on his three-hour journey to the Pole.
But reaching the Pole also led him to immediately reflect on his ancestors attempts to reach the Pole.
Cmdr. Shackleton said one of his first thoughts was a favorite quote of his from Sir Ernest: "I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns."
Cmdr. Shackleton said "the phrase went through my ears, and you can't really shed a tear at the pole because it freezes before it leaves your eye, but believe me, my stomach was tight as a drum."
"I really felt the emotions of what it's like to be there, and what those guys went through that made it there on sleds back in the turn of the century."
Family, Friends Cheered on Cmdr. Shackleton Through Facebook
In anticipation of his visit to the Pole his wife had set up a Facebook page to update the many family and friends who had heard about his opportunity. Shackleton said interest in his trip has "spread like a wave" among the Shackleton family and even helped his family reconnect with direct descendants of Sir Ernest.
Cmdr. Shackleton hadn't spoken to his family since his return to McMurdo Station. He is now preparing for another epic journey -- his return home to the San Francisco area. In sharp contrast to the years-long exploits of Sir Ernest, he will face the challenges of modern air travel: he'll have to make connecting flights to New Zealand, Australia and California that will have him airborne for almost a full day.
Then, he'll return to his day job as an Assistant Dean at the School of Engineering at The University of California at Berkeley.